The Give and Go: Mental Health joins pro sports conversion

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Athletes have to be strong from the neck down. Competitors need healthy minds, too.
Unfortunately, professional sports organizations have been surprisingly slow to make the mind-body connection. Stress, pressure and brutal challenges await young professional athletes, and many need support for their psyche they cannot get on the training table. America’s sports landscape is littered with the sad stories of gifted athletes who crumbled in the spotlight.
Mental health can take a beating in the brutally competitive arena of professional sports. Pressure to perform at a consistently high level can adversely affect an athlete’s behavior on and off the field. Anxiety disorders, for example, should be handled with the same amount of caution as creaky knees. It is the responsibility of the teams to provide athletes with physical care as well as mental health care.
College sports are way ahead of the pros on mental health. A reference guide provided by the NCAA titled “Managing Student-Athletes’ Mental Health Issues,” emphasizes the importance of mental health. Student stars handed off to the pros often fall through the cracks. Royce White, a first-round draft pick of the Houston Rockets, has yet to see the court because of a dispute over how to manage his Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which can cause fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle aches, shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat. White wanted the Rockets to acknowledge his mental illness and appoint a mental health professional to evaluate his availability to perform.
White and the Rockets recently reached a yet-to-be-disclosed agreement that will undoubtedly be closely watched.
Khalil Greene, a former Major League shortstop for the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals, was not so lucky. He suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), an illness that prevented him from fulfilling his richly promising career. It is uncertain what a professional mental health assessor could have done for Greene’s career, but it is possible that with proper mental health support the gifted shortstop could still be an All-Star.
Other Major League Baseball players struggled with anxiety disorders, including the brilliant All-Star Jim Eisenrich, who also worked valiently to overcome Tourette’s syndrome. Eisenrich, who hit .361 for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996, actually retired from baseball for four years to deal with the affliction, the prime of what could have been a Hall of Fame career.
Eisenrich is a living, breathing example that mental health issues can be overcome if dealt with directly and effectively. In 1990 he was the first recipient of the MLB Tony Conigliaro Award for the player who has overcome a signficant obstacle in life. He now runs the Jim Eisenrich Foundation for children with Tourette’s syndrome in Kansas City.
Doctors have final say if athletes are physically able to play and there should be the same collaboration with mental health professionals to determine if an athlete’s psychological state is adequate to participate.
Brawn is nothing without brains. Mental health is inseparable from performance. Pro sports need to join the 21st century and start treating athletes holistically.

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